Think of how much harm could be prevented if all teens understood about consent before they start to enter romantic relationships! Consent means that each person listens to what their dating partner wants or doesn’t want to do and communicates their own limits and desires.
At Kidpower, we prepare adults to create cultures of positive communication and mutual respect starting at a very young age.
Four simple Kidpower Rules for Touch and Play are relevant for all ages and abilities. These rules help kids set their own boundaries and also teach them to respect other people’s boundaries. You can start using these rules from day one, even with a baby. For example, you can tell a 5-year old brother to check first with you before picking up his baby sister up because doing this without help would not be safe!
As soon as kids are old enough to understand, you can discuss consent in a very matter-of-fact way, using child-friendly examples and practices.
Touch, teasing, and play often create boundary problems in relationships. The four Kidpower Safety Rules are that touch, teasing, or play for affection or fun should be:
The choice of each person
Allowed by the adults in charge
Not a secret, which means that others can know
In daily life, this means that touch and play must be:
1. Safe. Punching each other is not safe. Playing a tag game where kids are roughly pushed to the ground is not safe. Making jokes that start to hurt someone’s feelings is not safe.
If behavior is not safe, it must be stopped.
2. The choice of each person. If Betsy and Maggie are tickling each other and both are having a good time, that is okay. But if one of them decides it is not fun anymore, the other person has to stop tickling.
Later on, this rule applies directly to the concept of consent for any kind of affectionate or sexual touch. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. It is okay for someone to change their mind, or decide “not to go any further” and when they do, the other person must stop.
3. Allowed by the adults in charge. If Betsy says, “Maggie, let me cut your hair, and I’ll use safety scissors, I’ll be really careful….,” even if Maggie would like that, it would still not be allowed, because that would not be okay with the grownups in charge. If Roberto and Juan think it would be fun to take their slices of birthday cake and smear them on each other’s faces, that would also not be okay with their grownups.
Rules about touch in your own home, where you are the adult in charge, are often different than the rules about touch in the workplace, in a restaurant, or at school. A tickling game that is allowed at home would probably not be allowed at school.
4. Not a secret, which means that others can know. Touch, games, and gifts should never have to be a secret. For older kids, you can explain that a gift for someone else might be a surprise until it is given to them, for example a birthday gift for grandma--but someone giving kids a gift should never be a secret.
Connor’s babysitter Janet asked him to keep a game they play a secret. That is breaking the safety rules because games should never be a secret. As soon as he can, Connor should tell another adult in charge that his babysitter is breaking the safety rules. Ideally that adult can say in a supportive and calm way, “Thank you for telling me. We will figure out what to do.”
Often parents and other caregivers worry about how to explain to children about the private parts of their body. They don’t want to raise sexual images that are not appropriate for kids; they don’t want to say so much that kids are afraid to touch their own bodies; and they don’t want to confuse children. Unfortunately, saying nothing might leave kids more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
In Kidpower, with the help of many parents, educators, and mental health experts, we have developed and field-tested language that seems to work well for different ages and different cultures. We tell children, “Your private areas are the parts of your body that can be covered by a bathing suit. For play or teasing, other people should not touch your private areas, ask you to touch their private areas, or show you movies or pictures about people and their private areas. For health or safety, such as if you’re sick, your parents or doctor might need to touch your private areas – and anything about people and their private areas should never be a secret.”
Between consenting adults, touch, teasing, and play might be private but they should not have to keep what they are doing a secret if either of them feels there is a problem and wants help. And the other safety rules apply – this behavior should still be safe, the choice of each person involved or witnessing the behavior, and allowed by the adults in charge.
By teaching kids about consent at a young age, we can help them grow up to be thoughtful adults who respect boundaries and have consenting relationships.
Adapted from Kidpower material featured in the new book Doing Right by Our Kids—Protecting Child Safety at All Levels by Amy Tiemann PhD and Irene van der Zande, Founder of Kidpower. Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International is a global leader in personal safety education, since 1989. For more information and resources visit www.Kidpower.org and www.DoingRightByOurKids.com